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The Trump administration announced it will impose a sweeping but temporary nationwide eviction moratorium, protecting millions of struggling, out-of-work renters who were at risk of becoming homeless during a global pandemic.
Tuesday’s federal order, which shields non-paying tenants from eviction from Sept. 4 through Dec. 31 if they meet a certain set of criteria, came from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — not housing authorities. The health agency echoed an argument that affordable housing advocates have been making for months: Evictions pose a public health risk, especially when most Americans are being asked to stay home as much as possible. And it used a broad power that allows the CDC to take action when states aren’t doing enough to prevent the spread of disease.
But the order doesn’t preclude landlords from hounding their tenants for rent or charging late fees, and tenants still have to make payments if they don’t want to face eviction once the moratorium ends.
By one estimate, as many as 40 million renters were at risk of being evicted by the end of 2020. That would’ve forced people to crowd into shelters or the homes of friends or family, potentially increasing the spread of COVID-19 this winter.
The CDC wrote in its remarkable and seemingly unprecedented order that “housing stability helps protect public health,” later adding that the convergence of flu season, a still-raging pandemic, and a potential rise in homelessness made the immense use of federal power “a reasonably necessary measure.”
More than half of all states lack eviction moratoriums of their own, because they either recently allowed the protections to expire after enacting them at the start of the pandemic or never imposed them in the first place. And a federal moratorium on evicting tenants from federally-backed homes expired at the end of July, right around the time a supplemental $600 weekly benefit for unemployed workers ran dry.
That left fears that an eviction crisis would hit later this year and leave tenants at risk of destitution in a pandemic-ravaged economy that had wiped out their ability to pay rent.
The CDC’s order set a legal floor to prevent that, applying specifically to states that don’t have a moratorium of equal or greater protection — meaning some states with longer or more sweeping bans can proceed normally.
But there are limits.
Some renters won’t fall under the new federal moratorium’s protection, meaning they can be evicted, anyway. The order also didn’t bring any additional emergency rental assistance, meaning landlords will feel the burn in the coming months or find themselves unable to make mortgage, property tax, or maintenance payments.
Landlord organizations will also likely challenge whether the administration has the power to stop them, en masse, from booting non-paying tenants. And everyone will have to pay up, eventually, meaning the order might’ve simply pushed the predicted catastrophe into next year.
“This action delays but does not prevent evictions,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a statement. “Congress and the White House must get back to work on negotiations to enact a COVID-19 relief bill with at least $100 billion in emergency rental assistance.”
House Democrats had included $100 billion in assistance for renters in the HEROES Act in May. The package also included $75 billion in aid for homeowners. That proposal has not yet been considered by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Here’s what you need to know about Tuesday’s order:
How does it work, and who’s protected?
Tenants have to take a few steps to protect themselves under the CDC’s order, and not everyone will qualify.
For one, renters have to declare under penalty of perjury that they sought every possible avenue for government rental assistance. They also have to declare their income in one of three ways: They can report that they expect to earn less than $99,000 this year if they’re single or less than $198,000 if they’re filing a joint tax return, that they qualified for a stimulus check, or that they didn’t have to report income to federal tax authorities in 2019.
Renters also have to attest that they’re unable to pay their full rent because they lost their job, saw their hours cut at work, or currently face “extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses.” They have to say they’re using “best efforts” to make timely payments of rent, even if they’re only partial. And they have to declare that an eviction would either leave them homeless or living in close quarters in a “shared living setting.”
In its order Tuesday, the CDC included a form that tenants can sign and provide to their landlord to say they meet all of the qualifications. The form explicitly notes “any false or misleading statements or omissions may result in criminal and civil actions for fines, penalties, damages, or imprisonment.”
Landlords who run afoul of the CDC’s orders could be subjected to $100,000 in fines, a year in jail, or both. The penalties are greater if someone dies as a result of the violation, or if they were committed by an organization.
Tenants also still have contractual obligations, and rent isn’t canceled. That means landlords can still charge late fees as they see fit and move to evict qualifying tenants once the moratorium expires.
And that mass payment will come due right around Christmastime.
“While the moratorium extension is a step in the right direction, it won’t adequately meet the needs of millions of families who are behind on their rent,” Peggy Bailey, vice president of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a statement.
Who doesn’t it help?
The moratorium does little to relieve landlords or tenants who might be facing eviction for reasons other than non-payment.
Under the order, it’s still fair to pursue an eviction against a tenant who poses a risk to others or violates their lease for reasons other than non-payment. The order spells out that landlords can fairly pursue removal against people who are engaging in criminal activity, threatening the health or safety of other residents, damaging property, or “violating any other contractual obligation.”
But other than that, landlords are stuck if their sole grievance is that they’re not being paid rent during an economic crisis. And if landlords can’t evict non-paying tenants, they also can’t move new, paying tenants in, meaning they might have to sit back and eat their losses.
“Not only does an eviction moratorium not address renters’ real financial needs, a protracted eviction moratorium does nothing to address the financial pressures and obligations of rental property owners,” Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, which represents landlords, said in a statement. “Without mortgage forbearance protections and protections from other property-level financial obligations such as property taxes, insurance payments, utility service, etc., the stability of the entire rental housing sector is thrown into question.”
What are the economic consequences?
Landlords will almost certainly sue to block the CDC’s order, as they’ve already filed complaints about local moratoriums in states like Arizona and Illinois. Whether they’ll be successful remains unclear, as the CDC appears to have broad authority during a public health crisis.
Small landlords are suffering alongside their tenants during the pandemic. According to a recent survey of renters and landlords from Avail, a company that created an online platform to help small landlords, more than a third of tenants were unable to pay their full rent in August. That’s bad news for the 35% of landlord respondents that said they make half or more their income on those payments.
Mom-and-pop landlords, or individual investors, own nearly 23 million rental units nationwide. And they’re considered a critical part of addressing the country’s shortage of affordable housing, since institutional investors with an eye for bigger profit may be less likely to cater to riskier tenants or build new affordable housing due to the cost of construction and development.
If the landlords sell their properties or are foreclosed upon, fewer affordable units could be available in a time of economic upheaval, leaving low-income tenants in the lurch once evictions start up again and they need to find a new place to live.
“This action risks creating a cascade that will further harm the economy, amplify the housing affordability crisis and destroy the rental housing industry,” Robert Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association said in a statement. “This global housing crisis cannot be blamed on the rental housing industry, nor can the industry bear the brunt of the pandemic alone. We need balanced, reasonable solutions for all Americans.”
Cover: Photo by: A March on Billionaire Landlords is seen in New York City. (STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 8/20/20)